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How real is Mamata challenge to Modi? Preparing for 2024 'khela hobey' moment

By Prof Ujjwal K Chowdhury* 

Third time elected West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee is on a whirlwind tour of Delhi, meeting everyone who matters within and beyond the government, the Prime Minister, the President, some Cabinet ministers, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, several other opposition leaders, et al.
The purpose is very obvious: extract maximum benefits for Bengal, and work towards a united opposition to face 2024 general elections. And, as she goes to Delhi, her government sets up the first panel to investigate Pegasus scandal, within Bengal, headed by retired Supreme Court judges Justice MB Lokur and Justice Jyotirmoy Bhattacharya.
The difference from 2014 and 2019 scenarios are obvious not to be missed out. This time the agenda is not to create a third front which usually remains stillborn, and to create a united front with Congress and regional parties, and to start well in advance when half the tenure of the central government is still there to go.
She is serious in her challenge is driven home through several developments: Prashant Kishore’s activism in Delhi and Mumbai, senior bureaucrat Jahar Sircar being sent to the Rajya Sabha from Trinamool Congress (TMC), attempt to engage Sharad Pawar in the Mission Mamata and perhaps convince him to be united opposition candidate for Presidential election, etc.
That Prime Minister Narendra Modi still remains the tallest leader goes without mention. And it is through a concoction of loyal media, Covid restrictions on protests, use of ED-CBI-IT, use of Hindutva and Ram Mandir, widespread communal hatred amongst a section of the voters, and TINA perception (‘there is not alternative’).
To surmount the humongous perception deficit for Mamata is a challenge, but surely there is enough of wind in her sails too, and this she made it clear with her July 21 Martyrs' Day address (electronically communicated across beyond Bengal, including Delhi and Lucknow).

West Bengal victory

The hands-down victory in Bengal which has come after a bitterly fought election campaign, marred with violence and COVID second surge in Bengal; it has given boost to a national acceptance for Mamata Banerjee among all critics of BJP. Even sections of the ruling BJP, not very happy with the high-handedness of Modi-Shah, are privately appreciative Mamata.
She being a lady, wearing sandals and cotton saree, being always on the move in spite of being in mid-60s, and her image as a street-fighter, which was on full display during her leg injury and the election campaign, has only given her a multiplier effect in public perception. 
Politics indeed is a game of perception, and Modi knows it the best. The perception game of Mamata was on full display in her much amplified address on July 21 which she delivered in three languages.

No conflict with non-Congress non-Left opposition

A major factor that goes in her favour is that her party TMC is an offshoot of the Congress like several other non BJP regional parties, and has no conflict with any regional party as she is significantly present only in Tripura, combatting BJP primarily, beyond Bengal.
Also, alongside, several regional parties like Telangana Rashtra Samithi (Telengana), YSR Congress (Andhra Pradesh), BJD, the Left, some in Northeast, and even Samajwadi Party (UP) have different grades of conflict with Congress in their respective states. 
A Mamata-led government will be a bonanza for all regional parties ruling several states in India as both Congress and now BJP have exhibited major centralizing tendencies. Interestingly, both the Left and TMC have mellowed down their mutual antagonism and are publicly noting the NDA as their common political enemy number one, now.

Bengal Model of ‘inclusive’ growth

A central aspect of the victory of TMC in Bengal for the third time was the much-touted Bengal Model of inclusive growth which created several cash-kind-support schemes focusing on women through Kanyashree & Rupashree, on health through Swastha Sathi and Health Cards for all families (with insurance up to Rs.5 lacs per family), on farmers through Krishi Mitra and Sabuj Sathi, push to artisans of Bengal, etc.
The latest in the list is the credit card system with Rs 10 lakh worth credit support to students coming for higher education. These together have created an eco-system where several positives are seen today. UNESCO has awarded Kanyashree scheme for making a qualitative difference in girl-child education. 
With 76% literacy in the state, state GDP growth at 15% before pandemic (higher than UP, Gujarat, Bihar, etc), crime rate at 195 (against 262 of UP, as per NCRB data), and per capita income at $1600 per annum (above UP, Bihar, Assam and Odisha, among others), Bengal may not be leading the nation, but is among the front-runners (largely central government or independent agency figures).
While the Gujarat model, much touted by Modi-Shah and tea, lies now exposed to have benefitted large capital, was visible more on paper than on ground, and highest children malnourishment in Gujarat, there is now the debate being raised by TMC and some intellectuals on growth versus development, impact on Human Development Index and inclusive versus exclusive development. If this approach of TMC is coupled with NYAY (minimum guaranteed income) proposal of Rs 12,000 minimum monthly income for a working adult as was proposed by Congress in 2019, the result could be an electoral winner.

Desi communication with social media punch

‘Khela Hobey’ (We Shall Play) was the winning electoral war-cry of TMC during the last elections with which they have romped home. Then, they came out with blistering attacks on BJP using music, poetry, catchy one-liners, a series of expose on the social media, and showing how the challenger was out of place with native culture of India.
The entire campaign style, guided by Prashant Kishore (erstwhile Modi-Shah consultant in 2012-14), had a heady mix of technology and rusticity, was door-to-door yet electronically conveyed, and used local lingo to the hilt. 
If this approach is taken at the national level integrating this with issues of each state and putting the locally powerful opposition party at the centre of focus, there is a winning formula for the combined opposition alliance for play on. The Bengali dance numbers on how the sandal-wearing Mamata is now out to win Delhi is already in public domain.

Prashant Kishore (PK) factor

PK as he is normally known as, has been around for a decade now. But he made history first by ensuring the victory of JDU+RJD in Bihar some six years ago, and now the biggest success in his electoral strategist’s life has been the bitter-sweet victory of his client, TMC led by Mamata, in Bengal.
Over the last two months, he has moved across India, interacted with Sharad Pawar, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, and several other opposition leaders to ensure that a united opposition can be cobbled up with some credibility. Since he has been the consultant to TRS, Congress, SP, RJD, YSR Congress and DMK in the past, apart from TMC, it is expected that he shall play an important role in bringing the disparate opposition together. Early signs are already visible.

Olive branch to Congress

It is interesting to note that PK has met the Gandhis together and Sharad Pawar. He has noted that no opposition unity is possible without Congress, and third front is a no-brainer. Mamata has not spoken a word on federal front unlike the last time. Meanwhile, the Congress has strongly criticized the government for snooping on Abhishek Banerjee, TMC General Secretary, and TMC in response noted ‘Khela Hobey’.
There is not a single anti-Mamata statement by any central or state Congress leader since the Bengal results were announced on May 2. All these point to the same direction: Mamata is keen to get Congress on board, and Congress so far is playing ball. In fact, the pet project of PK now is to get the opposition together and agree to Sharad Pawar as presidential candidate, Mamata Banerjee as the PM face of the opposition, and Rahul Gandhi as the Deputy PM face.

Minority, liberal support; no caste identity

In Bengal, Mamata has got 48% votes this time, which includes a overwhelming support of the approximately 30% voters who are Muslims. The minorities across India look at her as an inclusive secular face, and so do a section of the liberals. ‘No Vote to BJP’ campaign by the intelligentsia of Bengal before the assembly elections did not categorically tell whom to vote for. It just noted whom not to vote for. 
That Mamata is not identified with her Brahmin surname, and that the Dalit Matua voters of Bengal have also overwhelmingly voted for her this time, is another reason of broader acceptance of Mamata in a caste-ridden politics of India.

Business lobbies

From Harsh Neotia to the Birlas, and several IT majors of India have been doing good business in Bengal and have supported Mamata in her national and global sojourns to seek investments. The Bajajs and many mid-level business houses have expressed admiration for her people-centric governance, especially in the interest of the women folks.

Modi-Shah-Yogi on back-foot

This is for the first time in seven years, the Modi-Shah are on the back-foot, with Pegasus spyware snooping controversy, COVID second surge causing havoc, more than 18 crores jobs lost in last 16 months (Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy study), India’s foreign policy failures seen repeatedly with China, Pakistan, Middle East, US, Iran etc., price-rise sky-rocketing (specially of fuel and gas that impact all commodity prices), and with a banking failure (NPAs above Rs 9 lakh crore) on one side and education on ventilator on the other (UNESCO says 52% of students did not have any education in last 16 months).
That the BJP high command, visibly at unease with Yogi Raj in UP for a long time now, had to accept his leadership for UP polls of early 2022, and even put up a brave face in his support, shows their dichotomy. Organic social media content has often trended against the government in the last one year, for the first time since Modi has become the PM.

Challenges for Mamata

All of the above only point towards a possible realignment of political forces in the opposition camp in India, which has still not happened, and will squarely rest upon the fact whether Congress agrees to play ball and accept deputy PM slot and second-ranked leadership. The competing interests of Congress and some regional forces need to be addressed amicably for any progress here.
Then the question of the state polls in 2022, especially of UP, is there, where if a united opposition can emerge and snatch victory from the incumbent BJP, there will be fire-play in national politics. The third imponderable is the possible use of hyper nationalism by Modi-Shah government (a la Pulwana-Balakot in 2019) in a situation that crops ahead of 2024 general elections.
One thing seems to be increasingly sure: the 2024 general elections may not a damp squib as the 2019 one was, and will be a deciding one for India of tomorrow.
---
*Educationist, columnist and television panelist, writes on contemporary issues of politics, media and education

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